Thursday, June 2, 2011

Waiting For the Power

Ever wonder why doctors’ clients are called “patients”?? If you’ve ever sat in a waiting room you catch on pretty quickly that patience is a virtue.

Waiting is frequently associated with something out of the ordinary, a significant event: birthday, graduation, wedding, discharge from the military, or retirement. People have various ways of marking the time, of waiting for the “big day”, often by literally marking off  the days on the calendar.

Sometimes people wait to receive something, either in the mail or by telephone: news of a big win in the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, a letter from a loved one, of acceptance to college, news about a new job, the results of a medical test, or a refund from the IRS. We all know the mixture of excitement or dread that goes with such waiting. Will they call? Will the letter be in the post box? Will the news be good? And if our expected news fails to arrive, we begin waiting another 24 hours and wonder: Will it come tomorrow?

Hospitals have special rooms where family members and friends wait for someone to come out of surgery, and there are other rooms near intensive care units where people wait to see or to hear news about others for whom they love and care. There’s always a story attached to our waiting, and such rooms, if they could speak, would tell us of the joyous and hopeful ones, as well as the many anguished and sad ones.

When people end up together in such waiting, often a sort of community begins to develop. People who’ve been perfect strangers become comrades, if not friends. They support and pray for one another, cheer each other on, and perform small, random acts of kindness. They share stories about their lives, their struggles, their hopes, their fears. Once their personal crisis is resolved, they go separate ways, and most will never see one another again. Yet in their waiting they’ve awakened the possibility of a special kind of caring for others.

Jesus’ disciples had been through a lot together. They’d been called from all sorts of backgrounds and circumstances. They’d followed Jesus of Nazareth and waited with Him as He spoke profound words and did astonishing things. They’d glimpsed a hint of His greatness and began to believe that the waiting would surely end in glory. The only problem was that the glory came in the form of a cross, outside Jerusalem’s walls, and what kind of glory is that!?

As Jesus talked to the disciples about the suffering He would soon face, they heard Him pray that they would be one. But it seemed to be asking far too much to make them wait for this in the shadow of an instrument of execution. Instead of being one, as it turned out, they one-by-one abandoned Jesus, never really understanding.

Three days afterward, the Cross changed from a sign of shame and defeat into a symbol of victory. Jesus was raised from death, and appeared to them even as they waited in near-despair. It began to look again as though the waiting would, after all, end in glory. Jesus, they thought, would now establish the kingdom he’d often talked about, and guess who would be there when He did -- going in at the head of the line!

After a short post-Resurrection time together, Jesus did a strange thing. When they questioned Him about restoring the kingdom, Luke says (Acts 1:6-7), Jesus told them: “It isn’t for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set...” And just like that, Luke continues in v. 9, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight...”  That, of course, isn’t to be taken literally: as some sort of a divine “elevator” trick! Given his view of the world, this was Luke’s way of visualizing and expressing for his readers the powerfully true meaning of Jesus’ return to the Father, which we traditionally call “the Ascension”. 

Notice that the focus in Luke’s narrative in Acts isn't heavenward, but earthward: “...why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Jesus had just (v. 4) “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father...” He assured them that the Spirit would “come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” So much for their fantasy of the “glory kingdom”!

Post-Ascension...Pre-Pentecost...waiting. Uncertainty as to what’s going on; powerlessness; questioning. They were fragmented as a group, since one of their 12 was gone. The only thing they now had to go on was a set of impossibly dark (from Good Friday) and impossibly ecstatic (from Easter and the Ascension) memories. That and Jesus’ reassuring promise that He would send the Holy Spirit to empower them to witness to the crucified, risen, ascended, and reigning Lord, in the midst of an unbelieving world. What does one do, though, in the time in between: the time of waiting?

In His farewell talk to them, in John 17:1-11, Jesus tried to teach the disciples (and us) the true meaning of “glory”, which He calls “eternal life”.  Jesus says that it isn’t about cashing in on a “grand reward” later on in heaven, reward attained through success, possessions or power. “Eternal life” is what our being, our existence, here and now is all about. “This”, Jesus says, “is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent...” And it's not academic knowledge -- “knowledge of”, “knowledge about” -- but knowing, in the sense of “identification with”, “intimate relaltionship with”. It’s a knowing of one’s whole being: body, mind, and soul, which simply can’t help itself but to act.

Luke says that in their waiting the disciples did act, in two ways: 1) “they devoted themselves to prayer...”; and 2) they did so “with one accord...”, together, with one mind. We really don’t know what the mood and content of that prayer was. But in light of what happened later, namely, their restoring of wholeness to the group of 12 by choosing Matthias to replace Judas, and their dramatic experiences of the the coming of the Holy Spirit, we can surmise that their prayer likely consisted of a number of elements:
- a frank and honest confession of their common powerlessness, of their fragmented unity and diversity;
- an appeal for guidance as to what steps they should take in faith, given who they were and the available human resources they had;
- and, finally, a plea for the gift of God’s Spirit -- not so that they would be made comfortable, or go forth to preach having all the answers, but so that they might humbly learn how to reach out to others who have an endless range of diverse needs, to “know” them even as they were known by the Father and Jesus.

Any company of Christians at any time, even a parish, can fall victim to post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost waiting. It’s a kind of paralysis caused by feeling trapped between two apparently irreconcilable realities: on one hand, the incredible grandeur of the reality of Resurrection and Ascension, and the Risen Lord’s invitation to bear witness to these events; and, on the other, the sort of global inertia we feel of things as they are in this world and in the Church, together with the seemingly meager and fragile inner and outer resources we each think we have.

The Holy Spirit who came at Pentecost healed this paralysis among the first disciples and gave them a new desire and energy to go forth preaching and teaching the Good News of Jesus. Were the disciples around today, they’d no doubt be amazed at the numbers of those who call themselves followers of Jesus, and at the extent to which the Gospel has been spread over the world.

But two questions constantly nag at us: 1) What kind of witnesses are we? and 2) What is it, exactly, to which we’re to bear witness? A brief look at church history can make us shudder. Self-serving alliances with power and privilege, neglect of the poor, persecutions, crusades, religious wars, sectarian quarrels and divisions -- both within and outside the Church, the often mindless celebration of cheap grace, and the trivializing of the Gospel in other ways -- all these can throw thoughtful followers of Christ into a prolonged post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost mood. Where do we find the resources to confront ourselves and the world, to come alive in our faith, to overcome our disunity, and to give credible witness to the crucified, risen, ascended, and reigning Lord?

Luke's narrative in Acts suggests that the true Church is marked by unity in prayer. O. Wesley Allen, Jr. observes that, The church, like the rest of society, can hardly agree on anything. We argue about the nature of sin and salvation, economic justice, who God is, military policy, worship styles, sex, inclusive language, and so forth...But by God, or better, through Christ, we ought to be able to pray together...” Together we’re called to confess our common powerlessness, fragmentedness and unfaithfulness; to pray for guidance to take the next practical steps we can, in faith: where we are, as we are, with just the resources that are now available to us. Finally, relying on Jesus’ promise, we need to pray that we may accept the gift of, that we may know, the Holy Spirit of love.

Throughout history God has answered such prayer by raising up faithful witnesses: folks not conspicuous either by their numbers or by their successes, or by running around putting “Christian” tags on everything. Nor are even God’s most faithful witnesses exempt from their own blind spots and, at times, stupidity. The remarkable thing about them has never been their splendid perfection of character, but rather the unimaginable excellence and saving grace of the One whom they know intimately, and to Whom they bear witness. The power of God’s Spirit to genuinely “be my the ends of the earth” is something which any one of us, or any parish, can dare to pray for with all confidence.

Walter Brueggeman notes: “In the church’s reckoning of time, the church awaits [from the feast of the Ascension] ten days for Pentecost. It waits those ten days without power...What matters is that the church waits under promise for the gift of power that it can receive from no other source...This is power from heaven, inscrutable, irresistible, power like the wind, power that gives energy, freedom, courage, authority, and healing, power to transform the world. There is an odd, dramatic slippage between the departure of Jesus and the invasion of God’s Spirit...the moment between Ascension and Pentecost. It may also be the in-between moment of the contemporary church. The church has only the promise. That, however, is enough!

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